Can exercise reduce anxiety in children with autism?

October 10, 2018

The Center for Autism & Neurodevelopmental Disorders in Santa Ana, California, has launched a study evaluating the effectiveness of exercise for reducing anxiety in children with autism, with a special focus on helping children in Latino communities and other underserved populations. The center is one of 14 sites in the Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network(ATN).

Funding for the four-year study comes through the ATN’s role as the federally funded Autism Intervention Research Network on Physical Health (AIR-P). Autism Speaks serves as the AIR-P in collaboration with the ATN Clinical Coordinating Center at Massachusetts General Hospital for Children and the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration.

 “We are excited to receive this AIR-P support to study the impact of exercise on anxiety, which is very common and can lead to poor outcomes in children with autism,” says study leader Jean. Gehricke. “The funding will allow us to collect valuable data that could significantly improve long-term physical and mental health, particularly in underserved communities.”

The research team designed the exercise-therapy program for children based on guidelines by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The study will assess how well families follow the program and will track children’s anxiety levels with saliva samples and parent questionnaires. The saliva samples will enable the research to measure cortisol, a hormone that reflects stress.

For comparison, the researchers will track the anxiety levels of children participating in an autism-therapy program that involves playing with LEGOs and Minecraft video games.

“A growing body of research confirms the wide-ranging benefits of exercise in reducing stress and improving the long-term health of children and adults,” adds behavior analyst Kelly McKinnon, a co-investigator on the project. “It’s exciting to be able to study its impact and share the results with our families.”

In particular, the study’s findings will guide the development of an Autism Speaks ATN/AIR-P exercise-therapy tool kit for reducing anxiety and challenging behaviors while improving physical health in children with autism.

Learn more about Autism Speaks tool kits and download them free here.

“Research is one of the core pillars of our mission,” says Catherine Brock, executive director of The Center for Autism & Neurodevelopmental Disorders. “With this support and Jean Gehricke’s pioneering research efforts, we will be better able to help parents and families overcome obstacles they face and assist children in reaching their optimal potential.”

For more information about the study, visit http://www.thecenter4autism.org, or email thecenter4autism@uci.edu.